CW: discussion of blood, medical procedures, and oppression
I consent to the procedure, my electronic signature an uneven path of beats and flat lines, an omen of what is to come.
My feet curl, crammed into the bone-white stirrups. The pink gown rustles as the midwife asks me to scoot further down, yes, a little more, please. The midwife places her gloved hands on my knees, separating them into two peaks. A little pinch. Then a little cramp, she says, as she cracks me open. I feel I have lost my yolk, any semblance of what holds me together, what makes me me.
This body, no longer familiar, is scrambled. Cramps bloom in my belly and I imagine my insides being torn to shreds, leaving me an empty carcass with less than one percent chance of creating life.
I think childbirth must feel like this, a widening wound, blood, all control over one’s body lost. On the table, at that moment, I remember my sister, pregnant with her first, talking about women defecating during childbirth. I don’t believe in my body anymore. Will I faint? Vomit? Shit myself? Is this punishment for not wanting to be a mother? Is it supposed to hurt this much?
I find possessing a uterus means constant questions, as I try to navigate the map of menstruation and the demands of the patriarchy. Is my period here? Do I have a tampon? Am I pregnant? Do I ever want to be pregnant? Is that tiny Y-shaped device inside my cervix yet?
On a warm spring day, I go to get my IUD implanted. I am twenty-nine years old and have been on birth control for over a decade. As a teenager, I had extremely heavy periods, with shooting, stinging cramps that left me horizontal for days. Once I even fainted from the pain and ended up smacking the base of my head on the tile floor of the restaurant where I worked. At sixteen, how do you explain that kind of shame to your coworkers or your physical therapist? (I had to go to physical therapy for my neck for weeks). When I turned eighteen and my mother could no longer deny two facts—I had significant health issues and I was sexually active—she took me to a gynecologist. The doctor prescribed the generic version of Seasonique, saying it was probably best for me to get my period as infrequently as possible.
For a decade, I took a pill a day, getting my period four times a year. When I did bleed, it was heavy and usually lasted five days. The day before my period arrived, I received the gift of vicious cramps. Somehow, however, they were still better than before the little blue pills. So, I kept taking them because I liked not having to buy expensive feminine products and worry about bloodstains on my sheets and underwear every month. I liked being able to have sex without a condom.
In Fall 2020, my health unraveled. Luckily, it wasn’t COVID-19, however, it was still a terrifying ordeal. One or several of my limbs would go numb for hours or days. A sharp tingling that intensified by the minute until the limb burned. I tried drinking more water and doing yoga to increase blood flow. I tried not to panic when my right arm went numb for two days. I tried not to panic when my doctor told me I may have had a stroke. I spent the next six months in and out of hospitals getting meticulous tests done on my blood, heart, brain, spine, nerves, and muscles. My husband drove me to every appointment, waiting in the car, since COVID-19 protocols wouldn’t allow him to come with me. Thanks to another round of blood work, I was diagnosed with an extremely underactive thyroid and Hashimoto’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder wherein your immune system attacks your thyroid. I have been on medication for nearly six months now and am relieved to say that my health is under control.
But in October 2020, when my doctor told me I may have had a stroke, she ordered me to stop taking birth control. Immediately. Apparently, some people with uteruses who are on birth control and have a heart condition can develop a hole in their heart. As a teenager, I was diagnosed with a heart murmur that has continued to haunt me even though I haven’t had symptoms in years. My doctor told me I couldn’t go back on birth control until we had a diagnosis.
Over the next six months, I became reacquainted with my body and its cycles. No added hormones, no pills to curve my bleeding. The first period was excruciating. The pain, the amount of bleeding, the uncontrollable waves of tears. For two days, I was alien to myself. I cried at literally everything, which is not a typical occurrence. Doubt and grief and anger consumed me. Yet a few days later, my period and the heightened emotions had passed. After that, my menses was less harsh. In fact, for the first time in my life, my period wasn’t something I dreaded. I even came to appreciate what my body did every month. How it shed and cleansed itself, like a snake.
The one problem, of course, was that I wasn’t on contraceptives. Condoms are fine temporarily, but a nuisance and disruptive. I have been with my partner for six years. Sex is one of the very important ways we connect and are intimate. And we have no plans to have human children. We love being parents to our dog, Atticus Finch, and eventually plan to have more fur babies.
The decision to get an IUD instead of going back on the pill was based on so many positive stories I’d heard and read about. Several of my friends told me they didn’t bleed at all or experience cramps anymore. Five years without getting my period, dealing with menstrual cramps, or worrying about getting pregnant was an attractive prospect.
You have a tilted uterus, the midwife tells me during my pelvic examination. She says an IUD is still possible, but it might be a more difficult implantation. I don’t think much of it, as a person used to painful, uncomfortable medical procedures and someone with multiple tattoos and piercings. I should have listened to her, as this experience becomes the most physically excruciating one of my lifetime.
For thirty minutes, the midwife pokes and stretches and finagles my uterus and this Y-shaped device. All the while, I bleed menses on the white paper sheet that now makes me think of a butcher shop more than a medical office. Isn’t my body being butchered, a slab of meat to be opened and manipulated because of public consumption, or rather, conception? I consented to the procedure, yes, but only because I exercise my right to not have my body carry and give birth to another human. Patriarchal society tells me as a person with a uterus that I should want to, or at the very least, grit my teeth and be a mother. It doesn’t consider my ambitions or dreams, it doesn’t consider my trauma or my difficult relationship with my own body as a healthy, able thirty-year-old. It doesn’t consider nor believe I should have the right to choose if I want to use contraceptives or if I want to exercise my right to get an abortion or if I want to fuck my husband without condoms and without creating life. The patriarchy doesn’t consider people with uteruses to have autonomy or desire. And if any of us displays such hunger, well, we are called whores and harpies and sometimes even witches.
There has long been a connection between the moon, menses, and the monstrous female. When thinking of the natural world, it makes sense. The moon’s cycle is approximately twenty-eight days, as is the human menstrual cycle. For centuries, humanity has seen the moon as a feminine force, with many femme-bodied goddesses as its keeper. For the Aztecs, there’s Coyolxauhqui; in China, there’s Heng-o (or Ch'ang-o), for the Mayans, there’s Ix Chel; in the Dahomey tribe in Africa, there’s Mawu; and in Greek mythology, there’s Artemis or Selene. It’s interesting to note that Selene is sometimes known as Mene, and that her fifty daughters with Endymion were known as the Menae.
Of course, the moon isn’t only associated with or limited to femme-bodied figures. The moon is for everyone to work with, if interested.
My favorite film about puberty and the monstrous female happens to be about a witch. And not just any witch, but Robert Egger’s The Witch (2015). It follows a Puritan family that has recently left its colony to settle on its own. Shortly after, Thomasin, on the cusp of womanhood, becomes the scapegoat for the disappearance of her brother, Samuel, and every other mysterious or sinister occurrence that follows. She is accused by her family of making a pact with the Devil.
At one point in the movie, William decrees, “We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.” Soon, he realizes the wilderness (or wildness) he fears is the sexual independence of his daughter. Of what it means for a woman to not submit herself to the limited roles forced upon femme-bodied folks by society. One must be godly and be a wife and mother. Anyone who falls outside of that, as we saw in the Salem Witch Trials, is condemned as a witch.
While we don’t see Thomasin get her period in the film, her mother tells William that Thomasin has “begot the sign of her womanhood.” Thomasin’s menses directly connects to her family’s suspicion of her. I love this film for many reasons, but the most delicious scene is when Thomasin, covered in blood, goes into the woods after disrobing and signing her name in the Devil’s book. She joins a group of nude young women in the woods and together they dance and laugh and levitate under the glorious light of the moon.
No matter the science, the moon holds mystery. Especially the full moon. Many believe the full moon drives people mad (this is not factually true; however, there are some interesting correlations). Folklore and mass media tell us stories of witches in the woods and cursed men transforming into wolves during the full moon. In some cultures, menstruation is seen as a curse. In Nepal, for instance, there are menstruation huts, where menstruating folks are kept isolated, to keep their impurity away from the rest of the community. Superstition says that a menstruating woman is a bringer of curses. If she touches a man, he will fall ill. If she touches a tree, it will cease to grow. Pliny the Elder wrote that “the gaze of a menstruating woman could kill livestock and cause miscarriages in pregnant women. He also said sex with a menstruating woman could kill a man” (Freuler). The irony being that menses is a symbol of fertility. That without it, there cannot be life.
The patriarchy has feared the mystery of the uterus, the vagina, and the femme-bodied for thousands of years. It’s taught us virginity equates value. That marriage and motherhood are prizes. That anything outside of those boxes is ugly and evil and dirty. The patriarchy has shaped stories around these harpies, these nasty women that don’t follow the script. Introduce Lamia, Lilith, and Baba Yaga. One an example of too much maternal instinct. Of how hysteria can devour (quite literally in this case). The term hysteria was derived from the Greek word hystera, meaning uterus. The others, monstrous females on the outskirts of society who are sexual, opinionated, and bloodthirsty.
In “Women and Other Monsters,” Jess Zimmerman writes, “It is considered monstrous not to want children, and monstrous to want them too much.” Lamia, the Queen of Libya and possibly the daughter of Poseidon, is the epitome of the monstrous mother, of how the desire for a child can destroy someone. Lamia, said to be incredibly beautiful, was pursued by Zeus. It’s important to note that we have no idea how she felt about this. Her consent is never mentioned in any variations of her myth. Lamia got pregnant and had Zeus’ children. When Hera found out about her husband’s latest dalliance, she transformed Lamia into a monster and then murdered her children. Grief overwhelmed Lamia, and in some versions, she plucked out her own eyes before starting a murderous rampage of children.
While Lamia’s mythos is muddled (as sadly many female monsters’ stories are), her monstrosity has echoed into other cultures and mythologies. In some translations of the Vulgate, a late 4th century Latin translation of the Bible, Lilith, using her sexuality to lure and kill her victims, is said to be a lamia. The term lamia was therefore used to describe the earliest female vampires, to which Lilith is often connected. We know Lilith’s story. Adam’s first wife (the first Eve, if you will) who refused to lie underneath him. She is the ultimate threat to the patriarchy: an independent, sex-positive seductress with a thirst for the blood of children, who also happens to birth literal demons.
Baba Yaga, from Russian folklore, is also said to snack on children. However, she never actually eats anyone in the stories. Cannibalism is only a threat. For me, Baba Yaga, as a witch, teacher, and outsider, is deeply connected to the cycles of life. She embodies the crone, a phase in life the patriarchy finds revolting. Without the ability to create new life, she no longer has worth. Worse than that, she lives deep within the forest, away from society, with a hut built with bones. She doesn’t submit to the strictures of society. And, often, Baba Yaga initiates young people into adulthood. She teaches them lessons that allow them to mature. To bloom. She is a “paradox of nature” (Hubbs), connected to both life and death.
These three figures reflect the Triple Goddess: the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Stigma and taboos are attached to every phase. The first menses kicks off the Maiden’s journey. Here, she meets the shame society places on us. That our parents and teachers place on us. If you are menstruating, you can get pregnant. If you are menstruating, you might possess desire. If you are menstruating, you might express heightened emotions. Keep your virtue intact at all costs. Motherhood is for marriage and old age is for baking cookies with your grandchildren. Innocence drips away with that first speckle of blood. Once menses begins, you are tainted. You can bleed for days and not die. You are a witch. A bringer of curses. A beast in disguise.
I admit sometimes during my period it feels like a monster thrums deep within my belly, ready to tear itself out. Sometimes I want to transform into a she-beast of mythic proportions and annihilate anything in my path. For fifteen years, I’ve gone to school and work with excruciating menstrual cramps. I’ve hidden acne and blotting that always seems to arrive on the day of an interview or date night with my husband. My uterus sometimes feels likes a curse, or a tomb of torture and oppression.
Finally, the midwife is able to place the IUD in my uterus. Sweat clings to my arms, my bra line, and the backs of my knees. Nausea sits in my bowels and throat. White stars blink in and out of my line of vision. Somehow I sit up and nod as the midwife tells me about the string test I should do in a month. Somehow I dress myself and make it out of the building into the bustle of Old City, Philadelphia. This is the first time this year Alex hasn’t driven me to a doctor’s appointment. I take a Lyft, open the window in the back and inhale deep breaths of fresh air through my mask. Tell myself I will be home in fifteen minutes. I just have to make it home and then I can allow myself to fall apart. Several times I nearly vomit in my mask. The Lyft driver tries to make conversation. I reply with some answers, not interested in his jovial talk of the beginning of spring. The only thing in bloom is pain.
At home, disrobe, and slip into pajamas. Set myself up on the couch, horizontal. I am supposed to join my husband at the bookstore we own, but I can’t get up. I have never felt so sick or been in so much pain before. I wonder again if I’m being punished for not wanting to have a child. For wanting pleasure and comfort and freedom.
I bleed for most of the first month, blood the color of merlot. Grit my teeth through days of cramps that make it feel as though my body is being severed, one slow cut at a time. Slice. Slice. Slice. Alex wants me to go back to the midwife. To get the Y-shaped device removed. He even offers to get snipped. If it’s possible, I love him just a little bit more for this offer. Why does contraception have to be on the one with the uterus?
I decide to give it six months. This, in part, is because I’m afraid if it was that bad going in, it’ll be worse coming out. Another part of me thinks the IUD will be worth it. Our bodies need time to adjust. My body needs time to regulate. In the past year, I went from taking oral contraception to no birth control to an IUD. I want to give my body a grace period. It has been put through enough.
Six months later, I bleed very little. Mostly, spotting. The cramps arrive unannounced and heckle me sometimes for several days. Overall, this form of birth control isn’t bad. But things were better when I was completely off contraceptives. My body was happier and I felt more aligned with it than I have in years. I don’t miss week-long bleeding, however, the voice in my head tells me that’s the way nature intended. It reminds me that part of the great mystery of menses is that women can bleed monthly and not die. That early civilizations believed menstrual blood held great power. In Greek and Roman mythology, menstruating women could calm storms and rescue lost ships. Egyptian pharaohs and Celtic kings believed consuming or drinking menstrual blood could grant immortality. In these cultures, menstruation was celebrated.
Imagine if we lived in that world today. What would figures like Lamia and Lilith and Baba Yaga be seen as then? What about the witch, laughing as she levitates with blood splatter marking her liberation? Imagine if my body, with its breasts, vagina, and uterus, with its menses and cramps and mysteries, was celebrated not as an object of fertility but as a vessel of great power. What would the world be like then? Would the monstrous female metamorphose into the magnificent?
Freuler, Kate. Of Blood and Bones: Working with Shadow Magick & the Dark Moon
Hubbs, Joanna. Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture
Zimmerman, Jess. Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology
Christina Rosso (she/her) is a writer and bookstore owner living outside of Philadelphia with her bearded husband and rescue pup. She is the author of CREOLE CONJURE (Maudlin House, 2021) and SHE IS A BEAST (APEP Publications, 2020). Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. For more information, visit http://christina-rosso.com or find her on Twitter @Rosso_Christina.
Uncovered logs from the distant past and the future beyond.